Ask some fans what their most precious possession in the world is, and quite often the answer will come back, “my first GIjOE.” That’s a seriously strong emotional attachment to anything, much less a toy. But since its introduction in 1964, GIjOE action figures have grown in popularity to such a degree that the toy line has now become a permanent part of the American psyche and worldwide pop-culture.
Other brands have come and gone. Some even surpassed GIjOE in terms of product detail or quality (Dragon, Hot Toys, etc.), but none has ever enjoyed the affectionate familiarity fans feel for “America’s Movable Fighting Man.”
Joe’s deep penetration into our collective consumer consciousness hasn’t escaped the attention of those in the artistic community either. In fact, GIjOE has become a very popular “still-life” subject for painters and sculptors worldwide. Many are clearly fascinated by the line’s effects on our imaginative roleplay during childhood, its effects on the commercialization of the military, and the ongoing anthropomorphization (i.e. the attribution of human characteristics to nonhuman objects) of toys, dolls and action figures—all worthy subjects of exploration through art.
GIjOE as a recurring subject in “fine art” is a relatively new phenomenon that seems to be growing in popularity. While the commercially contracted works of famous illustrators Sam Petrucci, Don Stivers and Larry Selman are well-known, many fans are surprised to learn that fine art painters and sculptors regularly depict our favorite action figure in their work as well; not for use on a package or store display, but as a way to communicate an emotion, viewpoint or personal message.
One such artwork caught my attention recently. I was browsing over at (of all places) the shopgoodwill.com website when I came across an unusual acrylic painting that had been done by an “S. Shifflett,” depicting two GIjOEs figures. What caught my attention was that they had not been portrayed as humans (such as on a package), nor as a simple “still life” object (like a bowl of fruit), but as toys that were clearly ALIVE.
Upon first glance, the painting appears to show a blonde, painted-hair sniper that has just been captured by a Fuzzhead Joe, who is pinning the sniper’s arms behind his back. But the sniper’s shirt is open and pulled back slightly revealing a tattoo, and his pants are hanging a tad on the low side. Is another (possibly erotic) interpretation to be made of this work? The answer is always left up to the viewer to decide. That’s what good art (hopefully) does—it makes the viewer THINK and FEEL.
I could see that the painting was signed “S. Shifflett 99” in pencil on the back. After a little online research, I discovered that the artist was the very talented, Suzanne Shifflett. See her website HERE. As it turns out, the painting I discovered on shopgoodwill.com was merely a color study or “practice piece” for a much larger, life-sized work entitled, “My First Tattoo” (see photo above). Fascinated by her choice of subject matter, I asked Suzanne to discuss her work and reasons for depicting GIjOE in art. She generously replied…
“I think I got my first GIjOE when I was about 10. He had life-like hair and a beard. The thing I loved about him was that I could take off his clothes. I started sewing clothes for him pretty quickly. It was more fun playing with Joe because he had better moving parts and was easier to animate than Johnny West.
I liked the idea of how when we were kids we would get close to our action figures and imagine that they were real. It was easy to imagine that we where watching a movie or that WE where the figures having some kind of adventure.
I also loved the sculpts on the plastic Marx toys and GIjOEs. In preparation for my paintings, I take some reference photos with a macro lens so the field of focus is very shallow. I feel this gives the viewer the feel of being in the scene.
I didn’t want to paint the figures as real people like they were on their box tops. I prefer to pay attention to the nostalgic feeling that seeing their details gives me.
Finally, I only paint toys that I might have played with myself. I’ve tried taking photos of He-Man toys, but they didn’t have that same fuzzy feeling. It’s like when you take a creative writing class and they tell you to write about what you know.”
Rather than depict a GIjOE character as a living toy, artist Brian Viveros, chose instead to depict the “Baroness” as predominantly human, but with one important exception—her neck remains segmented in an obvious homage to her plastic toy origins. With this simple alteration, Viveros’ work stands firmly in two dimensions; the world of reality (flesh and blood) and that of artificiality and imagination (toys). According to his website found HERE…
“Celebrated fetish artist Brian M. Viveros is internationally embraced for his erotic paintings of doe-eyed beauties with Marlboros dangling seductively from their lips and has also recently been utilizing the medium of film to capture the dark and evocative debris that radiates from his mind. His paintings are a drunken mix of oil, airbrush, acrylic, and ink. In his work, Viveros shines a light on his own inner world and society at large and aims to captivate even the most jaded eyes.”
While Viveros’ chose to create a unique toy/human depiction of the Baroness, artist Thedra Cullar-Ledford has instead chosen to depict Joe in his purely plastic, inert toy form. In her intriguing painting, “Joe and Ho 500,” the artist shows a reclining GIjOE, laying next to a wide-eyed doll with a broken arm. Countless questions are raised by this image. Is it merely a still life? Or are they supposed to be alive? Perhaps some clues can be gathered from the artist’s website HERE in which she reveals the following insights regarding her work…
“It’s a mash-up of conceptualism, minimalism, storytelling and autobiography. These paintings were always intended to come together into a single container — a book — which is itself the final, finished piece.”
Another artist, Tim Liddy, specializes in the creation of ultra-realistic oil paintings depicting both real and fantasy board games. Yes, you read that correctly. In his oil painting of “GIjOE Operation: South Beach” (shown below), Liddy is clearly going for humor as well as trying to show off with his top-notch painting skills—and he succeeds admirably. The box top he depicts shows a bearded, muscular Sailor Joe dubbed “Homo Erectus,” stretching out his shoulders while a couple of adoring “Kens” look on in raptured admiration. Hilarious! You can see more of Liddy’s amusing and realistic work HERE.
Commercial art typically only benefits the business or company that commissioned it, while fine art has a long tradition of being created and sold to support a specific cause or charity. For example, artist Trevor Hopkins recently created four outstanding paintings which were auctioned off during Joelanta 2012 to help the Cody Lane Memorial Toy and Diorama Museum. In addition to raising hundreds of dollars for the organization, Hopkin’s colorful abstractions of the four vintage GIjOE boxes drew great admiration from all the GIjOE fans in attendance (see photo below).
There are countless other examples of “GIjOE in the World of Fine Art” I could show; paintings, photographs, sculptures, every possible medium appears to be utilizing our 12″ hero in some form or another. But I’ll just leave you with two more I came across…
The first is called “Tubed” and is by actor-artist, Jazz Undy. This light-hearted, three-dimensional work incorporates an actual “found object” GIjOE, which, according to Undy’s website found HERE, “can be removed from the picture and played with.” The painting is bold, primitive and colorful; a simple work of whimsical decor.
Lastly, an evocative piece called “Reality Check” by artist Ira Upin, depicts a GIjOE whose leg has been replaced with a prosthetic from the knee to the ankle. Is the work trying to make an anti-war statement? A commentary on military medical care? Or…? You decide. It’s just cool to see GIjOE represented in artwork other than a package or box top. Upin’s asking price? A mere $9,000. As of the time of this post, it was still available. Go HERE to buy it now!